23 Commercial Dr., Waterbury, 496-5504
Two weeks ago, many hearts broke when owners John and Jen Kimmich announced that they would not reopen the Alchemist Pub & Brewery in Waterbury. To some, it seemed Tropical Storm Irene had won.
In some cases she has. Last weekend, I decided to look on the bright side and visit a story of triumph. Juniper's Fare, the localvore café owned and operated by the Moretown Church of the Crucified One, was gutted by Irene. With faith and hard work, the restaurant reopened in September, less than a month after it flooded.
I had tried its food just a week prior to the disaster and was eager to get back for another taste.
The interior, with its chalkboard menu against a bright-red wall is new, as is the addition of table service. Reminders that the restaurant is run by a Franciscan ministry, including the Bible and prayer request form at right, remain. Statues gathered on missions in Africa remind diners that a portion of all proceeds go to Everyone's Child, Inc., a charity that builds schools in third-world countries.
There is nothing third-world about the food at Juniper's Fare, though it is rustic and proudly handcrafted.
I started with a mango-citrus iced tea. When I visited the church in 2009, Juniper's Fare chef Martin Smith was starting to create his own tea blends. This one was tropical, tangy and just sweet enough.
It was a lovely match for my burger. The big, juicy patty was made of Wood Creek Farm beef. It was cooked slightly less than my requested medium rare, but it was so nicely seasoned it didn't matter.
The bacon, on the other hand, was ideally crisp and flavorful. The slabs were held on with a generous sheet of melted Cabot cheddar. Fresh whole-leaf lettuce and petite tomato slices were, like the other ingredients, ideal versions that could have been taken from Plato's cave. Somehow, though, all piled on to the crusty Kaiser roll, they were worth even more than the sum of their parts.
The side salad that I chose instead of fries was delicious, too. The house dressing is a roasted-tomato vinaigrette — made from the church's own tomatoes. I flipped for the strawberry vinaigrette I had tried at Juniper's Fare this summer, but this might have been even better. It's creamy, tangy and full of herbs. The folks at the café have a way with a tomato. The cup of tomato soup we tried was bursting with fresh, creamy flavor, too.
However, the best thing we ate was unquestionably the "famous" chicken club. If it truly is famous, it is rightfully so. If it is not, it should be. The same fantastic bacon, lettuce and tomato filled the same splendid roll as did the burger.
What characterized this sandwich were two great flavors that tasted great together. The first was homemade garlic mayonnaise. The other was slabs of griddle-marked, house-marinated chicken breast. The lightly crisped meat burst with tangy hints of citrus that blended symphonically with the mayo. This was more than just a sandwich.
Though adding onion rings (or sweet-potato fries) is an extra $2, it was a wise choice. These were some of the best I've had. The onions were not only gloriously sweet but cooked soft, and not slimy. The flavorful batter was wonderfully crisp and not greasy. If this is what church does, consider me converted.
We ended the meal with a slice of apple pie. The crackly crust was clearly homemade. The tender apples were very sweet -- bordering on too sweet for my tastes -- but spicy cinnamon balanced it. The filling was extremely moist. This would have been revelatory had the pie been served warm; cold, it felt a little soggy.
Though the meal ended with a bit of a decrescendo, I have a new favorite to add to my list of places for a knock-my-socks-off weekend breakfast or lunch. I'm glad that Juniper's Fare is back, showing what Vermonters can do in the face of adversity. Of course, I find nothing more inspiring than a great sandwich.